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Corn+Soybean Digest

Agriculture Needs Some Stars

Agriculture needs more celebrities. Physics, for example, has Steven Hawking. Kids are drawn to sports by stars like Sammy Sosa. In pop music, Britney Spears is today's idol. In agriculture, though, we've unfortunately got slim pickings. The star at a big ag event in Brazil is José Bové, the French farmer who tore up a McDonald's restaurant in France some time ago, to protest globalization.

The event he's starring in is the World Social Forum, in the southern Brazil city of Porto Alegre. Set up as a counterpoint to the World Trade Organization conference going on at the same time in Davos, Switzerland, the event is described by local papers as reminiscent of protests of the 1960s. And the event does seem to boast an eclectic mix of participants. One leader describes his group's members as “anarchists and anarcho-punks.” At the same conference, a university professor gives an interview on public policy initiatives to protect family farms in developing nations.

But the real media attention, of course, is with José Bové, who joined members of Brazil's Landless Movement (known by its initials in Portuguese, MST) in tearing up four-and-a-half acres of Monsanto test plots in the nearby town of Não-Me-Toque. Naturally, newspaper photographers were along on the trip, clicking away as Bové destroyed corn and soybeans, of which, an MST spokesperson said, the group had information to indicate were biotech crops.

Commercial-scale production of biotech crops is approved in Brazil, but held up by a court injunction. However, registered test plots are allowed.

MST's purpose has traditionally been to redistribute some of the obscenely large, unoccupied lands held by a few rich landlords into the hands of hundreds of thousands of people who have no access to even a few acres on which to grow crops and support families. They often draw attention to their case by occupying a few high-profile pieces of property, such as President Fernando Henrique Cardoso's farm in the state of Minas Gerais. Too often, these occupations are accompanied by violence and, sometimes, death.

So it was no surprise that the staff cleared out when M. Bové and his MST colleagues arrived at the Monsanto property in Não-Me-Toque. The protesters spent the night, and, their point made, went home.

Subsequently, Bové made headlines again when the Federal Police served him with a notice, giving him 24 hours to leave Brazil. That didn't seem to bother Bové, whose already-issued return ticket to France put him on a flight leaving before the end of the 24-hour period, anyway.

But why would a land redistribution group and an anti-globalization celebrity get together to destroy test plots? Farmers from the region surrounding Porto Alegre have said that MST leadership thinks of biotech as a technology, exploited by multinational corporations, that favors big farmers over small ones. In addition, biotechnology enslaves producers to a foreign-owned technology because a producer often must buy seeds and ag chemicals from the same multinational.

The argument doesn't hold water, of course. Brazil's public ag research entity, Embrapa, is a leader in biotech research, including increasing protein in dry beans and creating better tropical fruits — benefits to the entire population.

To some, the joining of Bové and MST looks more like a marriage of convenience, tying celebrity to a group that depends on the donations and membership that come with increased press coverage. An Argentine food industry executive has said Europe-based groups such as Greenpeace and Via Paysenne (Bové's group) are, in effect, erecting new trade barriers against Latin (and U.S.) farmers by striving to block them from using cost-saving products. And those products would help them compete against Europe's highly subsidized agriculture.

Either way, agriculture definitely needs more and better celebrities. How about a Britney Spears concert to open up European markets?

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